by Denyse O'Leary
(Australian philosopher David Stove (1927-1994), not a religious man and no defender of any type of creationism, wrote a book Darwinian Fairytales (Avebury Press, 1995), which is part of the Avebury Series in Philosophy, that shows clearly why the principal neo-Darwinian concepts of kin selection and inclusive fitness simply do not conform to the available evidence - certainly not for humans, and probably not for many other life forms. This series of blogs briefly introduces the topics covered in the 11 chapters of the book, with some other links, as available. This is a brief comment on Chapter 9 of 11, "A New Religion.")
Selfish gene theory (your behavior is ultimately controlled by your genes, which get you to copy them by producing offspring) is certainly the best-known neo-Darwinian theory today, spawning scads of adulation for Dawkins and an amazing amount of nonsense. Stove here introduces the point that began to function more or less like a religion, , a point he will develop further in Chapter 10.
One problem is that, while sociobiologists (adherents of selfish gene theory) claim on the one hand that genes are not really selfish or consciousness or purposeful, they write as though they in fact are. For example, Dawkins informs us (in The Extended Phenotype ) that when the cuckoo lays its egg in the nest of a reed warbler, the cuckoo's genes are manipulating the reed warbler's genes, to the cuckoo's advantage. But manipulation implies intelligence and purpose (though causation as such does not necessarily imply that.
And what are we to make of the cleverness of the cuckoo's genes in such a case? Stove writes,
If the nest parasitism of cuckoos is a case of manipulation, it is certainly a staggeringly clever one: far too clever for cuckoos, in particular, to be capable of. Can a cuckoo have a purpose as complicated as that of getting a reed warbler to feed a cuckoo nestling better than it fees its own young? That must be extremely doubtful. Still, let us suppose that a cuckoo is clever enough for that. He would need to be cleverer still, to be able to think up a way of achieving this purpose. In particular, could he think up a way of achieving it which did not involve any cuckoo's every going even within a mile of a reed warbler? No: there is no one who will credit cuckoos with so great an intellectual feat. (p. 173)
Here we are talking about a bird that cannot even build a nest. In sum, for Dawkins's idea to work, the cuckoo's genes must be not only smarter than the cuckoo itself, but probably smarter than most human beings, which raises certain problems. They must then be the equivalent of pagan immortal gods.
Not surprisingly, Dawkins attributes immortality to the genes (p. 174), which Stove suggests, provides a clue: Yes, this is a religion. Now, Stove has not much time for any religion, but of sociobiology in particular, he says,
Sociobiology is not incomprehensible, but it is one of the religious that are obviously false. The only part of it that is true is the doctrine that genes are invisible. But this is not something peculiar to sociobiology. Everyone agrees that genes are invisible .... (p. 175)
The problem is that genes are so unlikely to really function the way the sociobiologist needs them to that the self gene hypothesis can only be held on faith as a religion:
They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.
This excerpt from Dawkins gives the general idea. The genes are our masters and we are the flock of their pastures and the sheep of their hand, as the BOok of Common Prayer would say, addressing a more august deity.
It is not really surprising that most people who are drawn to religion prefer traditional monotheism to this stuff.
In Chapter 10 , Stove shows how, consistent with the religious aspect of their enterprise, the Darwinians have smuggled purpose back into biology, in the form of the selfish genes, thus giving 19th century clergyman Paley, long a butt of criticism, his ultimate revenge.
(Note: This is the third of 12 posts, working backwards to the Preface. I will replace this note with links to the other chapters later, for reader convenience.)
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain (Harper 2007).
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